The graduates of the Warren County Career Center are local police officers, firefighters, computer techs, restaurant chefs and auto mechanics, among others.

“We’re training today’s and tomorrow’s workforce,” says Margaret Hess, superintendent of the center, which serves Franklin, Kings, Lebanon, Little Miami, Springboro and Waynesville school districts.

“Students come to us while they are earning a high school diploma and learning a career,” she says. “I like to think they’re career ready and college prepared.”

But many were surprised in November when a 3.5 mill operating levy renewal for the vocational school, first approved by voters 36 years ago, was defeated by a margin of 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent—fewer than 500 votes.

“We thought it was a slam dunk in the business community, and when it was defeated we were shocked,” says Steve Wilson, president and CEO of LCNB Bank in Lebanon.

“The students who come out of the career center go right into jobs [in the community],” he says. “That is training for jobs that are really needed. If you go back to the basics of economic development, the way we get development is to have a good workforce.’’

The career center, which has seen enrollment double over the last decade for high school students and adults pursuing career development, says it needs the renewal levy to make needed updates on its 40-year-old building and buy equipment for its career training programs. The levy would generate an additional $6.8 million a year and cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $5.82 a month.

The career center is going back to voters on May 5 with the same 3.5 mill request, but this time local businesses are being more vocal about why the levy is needed.

“I feel strongly about this,” says Michael T. Schueler, chairman and CEO of the Schueler Group of Companies in Lebanon, who is helping raise funds to support the levy.

“We’re not a large company,” says Schueler. “We have about 37 employees at our corporate office, but maybe a dozen came through the career center. There are a lot of good-paying jobs that don’t require a college diploma.”

Levy supporters say a last-minute advertising campaign by an anti-tax group based in Clermont County contributed to the levy’s defeat.

“The opposition is certainly correct that it will raise more tax dollars, but that’s because it’s figured on today’s higher property valuations than when it was last approved,” says Wilson. A representative for the anti-tax group couldn’t be reached for comment for this article.

“The career center has been a great steward of our tax dollars,” Wilson says. “They’re a great contributor to economic development and they need this levy.”

Supt. Hess has a long list of updates the career center needs.

“Our building has been well-cared for but it’s aging,” she says. “When it was originally built a fire sprinkler system wasn’t required. In 80 percent of the building, we don’t have a fire suppression system.”

The building, built in the late 1970s before computers were common, is running out of electrical capacity and needs updates to its plumbing and heating and cooling equipment as well.

The vocational district, which opened its doors in 1976, also needs to upgrade equipment for its training programs.

For example, it offers a heavy equipment-training program, but that equipment costs more than $1 million and needs replacement, Hess says.

“There’s a big need for welders, but we’re limited in the number of students we can take in our welding program because of the limited amount of equipment we have,” she says. An Ohio school facilities assessment determined many of the center’s classrooms and labs are under-sized based on state specifications, she says.

Despite its building limitations, Hess says, the center earned all “‘A’s” in its Career Technical report card for the last two years from the Ohio Department of Education.

And enrollment continues to grow. Some 2,400 high school students will be enrolled in programs this year. Besides the main campus outside Lebanon, the career center also offers programming at the Greentree Health Science Academy outside Middletown, at its south campus in Kings Mills, at the Warren County Airport and a veterinary science program at the Warren County Humane Association.

The center also offers a variety of training to up to 4,000 adults both on its campus and off site including custom training for employers.

Flexibility is key, Hess says, to meet the changing needs of employers.

“If we have programs that aren’t meeting the needs of business and industry or no enrollment, we have to make a decision about whether to disinvest in that program. At same time, we’re looking at the types of programs we need to invest in.”

For example, she says, companies in the power industry said they needed trained power line workers. “Within a year we developed our electrical line mechanic program,” she says. “We can move pretty fast to develop curriculum.”

The one-year program has graduated 139 students over the last two years.

Although programs change, Hess says the center’s mission has been consistent from the beginning.

“Our focus is on preparing students so they can enter, advance and compete in a changing work world and make informed career decisions,” says Hess.